David Grossman, famed Israeli novelist and political essayist (he wrote the lyrics to the hip-hop smash Sticker Song) has written a searching and nuanced political eulogy for Ariel Sharon: How Sharon Won Israel’s Trust.
The most telling passage is this one:
What will happen now? Israel is a democracy, but we are witnessing a phenomenon that recalls what happens in totalitarian states when a leader leaves the stage. Sharon’s rule was so centralized and total that it seems as if there is no man who can take his place.
I couldn’t agree more. Israel’s supporters are wont to boast that Israel is the only democracy in the Mideast (that’s assuming you leave out Turkey and Lebanon, but they shouldn’t let a few inconvenient facts get in the way!). When in actuality Israel is what I’d call a hybrid democracy. It is certainly not a true democracy in the sense that other western countries can claim to be. It has no constitution or bill of rights. It has no co-equal judiciary capable of engaging in effective checks and balances. The role of the military in Israeli life is much more prominent and intrusive than in other democracies. The security services are given far broader leeway to violate civil rights than in countries like our own. It is as if Israelis adapted, and watered down western democracy for the cold hard world of the Middle East.
Grossman here captures the ambivalent admiration in which Sharon was held by most Israelis:
Because Sharon, in an amazingly short time, has metamorphosed from being one of the men most hated and feared by most Israelis into a respected leader, accepted and even much loved by his people. He has become a kind of big, powerful father figure whom Israelis are willing to follow, with their eyes closed, to wherever he may lead them. Their faith in him is so great that they do not even demand that he tell them which direction he plans to go, or what his foreign policy will be, or what state of affairs he intends to create for them.
Only in the cauldron that is the Mideast conflict could such an Ariel Sharon exist. As Churchill was turned out of office after World War II was over; and W.T. Sherman became a faded alcoholic has-been after his brilliant and brutal March to the Sea during the Civil War, so Sharon would never have ‘taken’ as a politician in a stable, secure country.
But as you will note if you read Grossman’s portrait, there are many rewards possible when you allow a man to become this central and powerful to a nation; just as there are many poison pills too. Ariel Sharon was a deep menace to Israeli democracy for much of his military and political career. As Grossman says, he believed that the means justified the ends. And the means usually involved cold-blooded brutality and the deaths of his enemies (armed or innocent) and of his own soldiers. This side of Sharon is that of the brutal murderer who abetted slaughter in Sabra and Shatilla.
But in the past few years, Sharon seemed to experience a political epiphany–coming to understand that Israel had enough land and enough settlements and that nothing further could be gained from constant warfare. So he turned away from perpetual armed conflict to embrace a vision (albeit uncoordinated with the Palestinians) of retrenchment for the sake of future peace. I wouldn’t call it a full-fledged embrace of peace. But it was a serious enough one that we can say he advanced the peace process some ways through his Gaza withdrawal.
But what comes next? There certainly is no other such patriarchal figure to whom the nation can turn. In fact, the three remaining leadership candidates are a washed out hack of a former prime minister, an untested relative newcomer to the national political scene, and another veteran of the political trenches with no known charisma or leadership qualities. Is this a bad thing?
Yes and no. Yes, because Israel needs someone with Sharon’s sure-handedness to lead it to a real peace with the Palestinians. But “no” in this case is stronger because Israel needs to come back down to earth and realize that Ariel Sharon was a one-time phenomenon. If there is to be real peace then a real and all too human political leader with all the flaws that average leaders have will have to struggle his or her way toward achieving that goal.
So in this sense, Sharon was a transitional leader like Moses, who took his people to Mount Nevo just this side of the Promised Land. But he never got to the other side. Instead, a merely average leader (with a few heroic exploits to his name) like Joshua bin Nun received that honor. Those who follow Sharon will be the ones who must make the incredibly hard choices leading to peace.
I don’t know if they will have what it takes to do that. I don’t know if the Israeli electorate has the guts and gumption to choose such a leader. In the past, Israelis have chosen the lowest common denominator, the candidate who promises to bleed the Palestinians the most, the one who makes promises everyone knows he will and cannot keep. Maybe now Israel is ready for some cold, hard realism to get to peace. I don’t know if it will happen, but it’s worth hoping it can.